Yeruham Calls Elections Overrated

Now is the time to stock up on real estate in Yeruham. At least if you believe this week's edition of Atid, the publication of the small desert city's community center. Much of this upturn apparently owes to Mayor Amram Mitzna's talent to make Jewish donors reach for their checkbook. But in 12 months, the honeymoon could be over.

Demand, according to Atid, is up, resulting in a surge of construction and renovation. The price tag for a rented house with a yard in the old neighborhood of Shaked, for example, is now $450 instead of the former average rate of $320, according to Atid.

Another example for the real estate renaissance is the Bnei Beitcha neighborhood, where 32 buyers competed for 24 lots. About a third of the buyers are new arrivals who only recently moved to Yeruham or are planning to do so shortly.

Mitzna is the man behind the revival. He was parachuted in, so to speak, to the mayor's office two years ago to replace Barush Elmakaias, who was dismissed after accumulating vast deficits and following suspicions of improper administration.

During the two years the former Labor chair and Haifa mayor has spent in the mayor's office, Yeruham has seen the construction of a religious junior high school for girls that focuses on sciences. Furthermore, a religious high school that acts as a yeshiva for early teens has been built, too.

For the first time in Yeruham's history, these institutions are attracting students from neighboring towns as well. The yeshiva, for example, can only accept one in every four applicants.

The municipal elementary school received a new garden, the city's swimming pool was renovated along with many buildings from the projects, which previously had stood crumbling under the Negev sun.

The circle at the entrance to the town had flowers planted in it and rose bushes now grace the sidewalk. Additional improvements include a new sewage plant and a massive program for cleaning the city's small lake. It is now home to some 7,000 fish, and attracts a troop of fishermen.

Next year, the city plans to build a camping ground on the lake's banks. The municipality aims to transform the area into the largest park in the entire Negev region. The famous singer Shlomo Artzi recently performed there in front of some 6,000 spectators with his lead guitar player, Avi Singoleda, who was born in Yeruham.

"It was a rare sight, seeing convoys of cars illuminating the desert," says Kinneret Swissa, who has been appointed manager of the Human Capital Center, scheduled to open in Yeruham, Swissa's hometown, in one month's time. Swissa's center will serve as an umbrella organization that will provide a one-stop service bureau for job seekers, people in need of professional training, scholarship applicants, etc.

The lake and the center are part of a cultural revolution Mitzna is now realizing, replete with courses, seminars, shows and workshops, excursions and youth movement activities - all partially or fully sponsored by the municipality or involving it.

Mitzna has been able to pull all this off by obtaining NIS 15 million from the Interior Ministry in the form of extra funding. He has also raised property taxes and collected debts from home and business owners. But mostly, he has raised donations from Jewish donors from the Diaspora.

So far, Mitzna has collected NIS 21 million. He is now in South America to raise funds from Jewish communities there. Before that, he visited Miami. Yeruham is engaged in several cooperation agreements with the American city.

Mitzna's subordinates and partners from the municipality say the reason he has been so successful in tapping into money from the Diaspora is his name: It serves as a door opener. He is not a municipal official who rose to the post of mayor. He is not very politically affiliated at present.

But in one year, Mitzna's term in office will end. "The big question is whether people here have learned from the past and are determined not to see a repeat of how things used to be before Mitzna came," says Swissa.

Elmakaias, the man who was there before Mitzna came and a probable candidate in the next elections, claims the hype is exaggerated. Moreover, he says that putting Mitzna in his previous post constitutes "a continuation of racism on the part of the Ashkenazi elite toward largely Sephardi towns like Yeruham."